Motorsports have existed for pretty much the entire history of the motor car and motorcycle. Today, they’ve amassed gigantic followings with millions of fans right around the world who love the roar of the engines, the smell of burning rubber, and the thrill of seeing man and machine push the boundaries of what is possible.
Of course, not everyone’s as sold on motorsports. Some are critical, describing it as “driving in circles for a few hours” or even arguing that the drivers and riders that take part aren’t really athletes because the engine is doing all the work.
But is this a fair criticism or is it that motorsports are just as demanding as many other elite sports?
Examining the Build of Top Motorsport Athletes
Back in the early days of motorsport, drivers were very clearly not in the best of shape. You only need to look at photos of Formula 1 drivers from the 1950s to see pot-bellied and burly men.
However, footballers from this era were not the finely tuned machines we have come to expect today. These early drivers were, therefore, more of a product of their time rather than an example of the easy ride they had.
Today, things could not be more different. You only have to look at the riders that are at the top of motorcycle racing to see this. For example, current MotoGP championship favourite, Fabio Quartararo is a slim and slender rider, weighing just 63kg.
Standing at 1.73m tall, this gives a BMI of 21, which sits in the lower half of the healthy range.
He isn’t an exception. Look at any driver on the Formula 1 grid and you’ll see ultra-lean athletic bodies. Because there is a performance loss for additional weight in an F1 car, the drivers need to minimise their own body mass so that they don’t offset the millions their teams invest into shaving off grams from their machinery. This is why you won’t see drivers shaped like bodybuilders.
Not a Sunday Drive
Driving a modern road car is easy. With power steering, anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control, air conditioning, and even safety features that intervene to prevent a crash, typical road users don’t have to exert much energy to control their cars.
You can’t, therefore, compare what your experience behind the wheel is like to that of the likes of Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen.
Most motorsports don’t have any of these. The lack of power steering is the most notable of absences as it means drivers must have a lot of upper body strength to make their cars change direction, especially at high speeds.
Buckets of Sweat
Ok, so we know modern motorsport athletes are lean, but you might argue that that doesn’t prove they have to work hard when they’re in the car.
That’s true, but there’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate that they do.
Perhaps the most notable one is the fact that during a race, a driver can lose several kilograms in weight just from sweating. The exact amount varies from race to race, but it’s usually at least two or three kilos.
Just a few decades ago, drivers would faint or be so weak that they couldn’t climb out of their cars. While they’re fitter today, modern drivers are still put under these same pressures.
When astronauts and fighter jet pilots train, they often have to spend time in a centrifuge. This is like an extreme version of a fairground ride that spins the rider around at ever-increasing speeds until all the blood rushes out of their head and they faint.
An average person will typically lose consciousness at around 4-6 G. Yet, F1 drivers are routinely exposed to such forces.
While accelerating, twice the normal force of gravity is placed on a driver’s body. While braking, that increases to 5 G, and when cornering at speed, it can go as high as 6 G. As they experience this, a driver must remain completely committed to getting the best lap time and maintain.
Only a trained athlete can maintain their peak performance while being subjected to the forces of a high-intensity roller coaster for up to two hours at a time.